A great selfie can boost your social media presence, show off your happiest memories (whether you're alone or with friends) or even snag you a hot date. Today's smartphones come with bigger, sharper front cameras to better capture those moments, but some do the job better than others. We tested all of the leading smartphones ─ including the iPhone 6s Plus, the Galaxy Note 5, the LG G4, the Nexus 6P and the Lumia 950 ─ in a variety of conditions to crown a selfie king.
After looking at everything from image quality and features to the ability to cram in the most amount of people, the iPhone 6s Plus narrowly defeated the Galaxy Note 5 (which has a similar front camera as the Galaxy S6, though with a wider lens).
Evaluation and Scoring
We looked at the front cameras of the following phones, which we selected because they're the leading, most popular smartphones in the market. The iPhone 6s Plus has the same selfie cameras as the iPhone 6s, while the Galaxy Note 5 has the same cameras as the S6 Edge Plus. The S6 and S6 Edge have selfie cameras of the same resolution as the Note 5, but narrower lenses.
I tested the five phones at the same time, taking shots with each camera seconds apart from each other. All photos were taken at the default camera settings, although I sometimes deactivated Beauty Mode (which is on by default on the Galaxy Note 5 and the LG G4) to get the most realistic images. Beauty Mode sometimes blurs an image in trying to smooth out imperfections, which can affect clarity. I tried to compose each shot the same way, but this was sometimes impossible due to the focal length and angle width of each device.
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We devised three rounds of testing around the most common types of selfies people take. In evaluating the selfies shot during each round, we put the heaviest emphasis on image quality, scoring each photo on a 30-point scale. Our fourth round looks at special features for each front camera, grading the phones on a 10-point scale.
Round 1: Daytime Selfie in Optimal Light (30 Points)
Before I left my apartment for work, I just had to capture how on point my hair and makeup were to show off to my three adoring Instagram fans. At my favorite selfie spot in my apartment, I snapped a portrait with each of the five phones.
The iPhone 6s Plus takes this round, thanks to its accurate colors. While the Note 5 delivered pleasant and true hues, it made me look somewhat pale, even without Beauty Mode turned on, while the iPhone retained the blush on my cheeks.
The Lumia 950 accurately captured my hair, but oversaturated the pink tones on my face, making me look like I was drunk at 9 a.m. (which I promise you I wasn't, despite how goofy I might look). The Nexus 6P made my hair look redder than it really was, while washing out my complexion, but the LG G4 was the worst of the bunch, making my medium-brown hair look dark.
WINNER: iPhone 6s Plus
Round 2: Group Selfie (30 Points)
Hanging out with my amazing co-workers is the highlight of my day, and when your crew looks as good as you do, a group selfie (or wefie or ussie or whatever you call it) is in order. I rounded up four members of the Tom's Guide team and headed to the roof for an impromptu photo shoot.
Of the lot, the iPhone 6s Plus had the most accurate colors, followed by the Galaxy Note 5. The Nexus 6P's image was too green, the LG G4 was overexposed and pale, while the Lumia was too saturated.
The wider the lens angle on your front camera, the more people and objects you can squeeze into the frame, making it ideal for a group shot. I managed to squeeze all five people in the shot with all the phones, but some were more challenging than others.
It was easiest by far to get all five people in the shot with the Note 5. Doing so with the iPhone or the Nexus proved more challenging, as we had to squeeze in tighter to get everyone in the shot. The G4 distorted my face at the extreme right side, making me look stretched.
While the iPhone had the best colors and exposure, the Note 5's wider angle lens and almost-as-good colors and exposure gives it this round.
WINNER: Galaxy Note 5
Round 3: Low Light/At Night (30 Points)
I came home at the end of the day to a beautiful New York nightscape awaiting me on my balcony. With the five phones, I snapped a pic with the city as my background, and the Galaxy Note 5's wide-angle lens gave me the most leeway to capture more buildings. The LG G4 and the Lumia could barely fit my face in along with some buildings in the background.
Of all the cameras, the LG G4 had the best exposure and color, but it also automatically lights up the screen when you snap a shot in the dark, even when the flash tool is turned off. While the Nexus was able to capture more of the background, the picture was noisy and, again, green. Both the Note 5 and the Lumia were too orange and splotchy, but were still better exposed than Apple's flagship. The iPhone 6s Plus had a narrow angle, and its image was so dark that I can barely see my eyes on my face.
The iPhone 6s Plus and the LG G4 have a selfie flash feature that use the phone's screen to light up your face when it's dark. While the iPhone's flash effectively lit up my face, it was slightly overpowering and cast things in the background in shadow.
The LG G4's flash was kinder on the background, but turned my face so white that I looked like a geisha while also washing out my peach-colored sweater. The G4 made my face look painted and ghastly as well, while the iPhone retained a more accurate skin tone.
It was difficult to pick a winner for this round, but the iPhone's more neutral flash effectively lights up faces for shots in near-darkness, while the G4 picks up details better in low light.
WINNER: TIE - LG G4 without flash, iPhone 6s Plus with flash
Round 4: Special Features (10 Points)
Other than image quality in various light situations, most phones' selfie cameras have baked in features that make them even more appealing. In addition to timers and selfie video recording — features found on all the phones we tested — each device has its own tools to improve your portraits.
The Galaxy Note 5 trumps all the other phones in this round based on its sheer number of useful tools, including advanced face beautifying, a Wide Selfie mode to take a panorama-like portrait, a Video Collage option to record four videos and compile them into a grid, and real-time Instagram-like filters. The Note 5 also has gesture and voice shutter options to make taking hands-free selfies easy, and reduce blurry images from camera shake.
The LG G4 trails the Note 5 as it doesn't have the filters or fun modes, but it offers voice and gesture shutters as well as beautification tools. The G4 even lights up the screen to act as a front flash in the dark. However, the LG G4 gives you just one slider to adjust the intensity of overall beautifying edits, while the Galaxy Note 5 lets you fine-tune how smooth you want your skin to look, how large you want your eyes and how slim you want your face.
MORE: Losing Face: Are Beautified Selfies Unethical?
While the Lumia doesn't have selfie-perfecting tools or cool modes like the Galaxy or the G4, it does capture animated pictures called Living Images, which can be exported as videos to share to social networks. The Lumia also has a dedicated camera button on its side, while the rest of the smartphones we tested let you use the volume button to activate the shutter (by default on some, programmable on others).
Like the Lumia, the iPhone 6s (and 6s Plus) has a Live Photos feature that snaps a second before and after your photo to produce animated pictures. Tumblr and Facebook support Apple's Live Photos as of this writing, they don’t support the Lumia's Living Images, making the latter mostly a novelty that you can play back only on your phone. Apple also lights up the screen to act as a front -facing flash for selfies in low light, but lacks any tool for selfie enhancing. However, iOS' Photos app has a built-in editor for pictures.
Finally, the Nexus 6P remains true to its pure Android roots, not offering much else in its camera app than a timer, HDR and a "Lens Blur" tool that lets you refocus your selfie after capturing it.
WINNER: Galaxy Note 5
This was a surprisingly close contest, particularly between the iPhone 6s Plus and the Galaxy Note 5. Both phones delivered great colors and clarity from their front cameras, but the iPhone's accurate hues, stronger contrast and better low-light performance gave it the crown. The Galaxy Note 5 is the better phone for tweaking images and taking group pictures, so those who need to squeeze more peeps in their portraits should pick that up.
The LG G4 also performed well, shining especially in the low-light round, but its contrast ratio was so high that daylight pictures were often overexposed.
Strangely enough, the Nexus 6P, which was a strong contender for best smartphone camera for its rear camera, consistently produced disappointingly green selfies compared with the rest. We also noticed a tendency to oversaturate on the Lumia 950, which gave its pictures great vibrancy, but often at the expense of realism.